Rational Development of Compassion

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In our last session we presented the first stages in the process for working ourselves up to developing bodhichitta. We saw that the first type of equanimity that we cultivate is the equanimity that tries to rid ourselves, at least provisionally, of gross disturbing emotions toward others that are all deriving from thinking in terms of “me,” “me,” “me” – a self-sufficiently knowable me. We want to be open to everybody, we want to expand our scope to everybody, which we do by thinking in terms of everybody has been nice to me, terrible toward me, and a stranger toward me, in terms of beginningless time, and so that opens us up to thinking about absolutely everybody, which is the scope that we need for Mahayana.

Having opened up ourselves to everybody and at least provisionally rid ourselves of the gross disturbing emotions toward them, then we want to cultivate a warm feeling toward them. So we have the steps of recognizing everybody has sometimes been our mother, they have been very kind to us, we feel very grateful, and we have this heart-warming love – this warm feeling toward everybody. So now, because this emotional warm feeling could get out of control, we need a more rational reinforcement of it. So now, we have to work on subtle disturbing emotions.

Subtle Disturbing Emotions

When we’re relating to others with this warm feeling, we’re not disturbed by being attracted to some and repelled from others, etc. based on thinking of “me,” “me,” “me,” and how they have dealt with “me.” So now try to imagine what it would be like, in terms of the appearance of everyone, when our way of dealing with them is not ego-based (ego in a negative ego type of way). Well, our mind will still make them appear as if they were truly existent, established from their own side, as in this still photograph like in a coloring book. And how will they appear? They will appear as “some are close to us,” “some are distant from us.”

So, it’s not that I am attracted to some and I’m repelled from others, but I feel closer to this one and not so close to that one. Can you understand and appreciate the distinction in terms of the emotion that is involved here? It’s a very gross emotion, a disturbing one, that “I want to get you” or “I want to get you away from ‘me,’ ‘me,’ ‘me.’” That’s a very gross one. And a very subtle disturbing emotion is that “I feel closer to you and I feel distant, I don’t feel so close to you.” It’s not that I want to get you, or I want to get you away, but still it feels like that, it appears like that to me, without being attracted or repelled. Try to understand that. I think this is a very significant distinction that’s being made here, with the distinction between gross and subtle disturbing emotions. And I think that that’s what subtle disturbing emotion is referring to.

Try to understand that; try to recognize that for yourself. Okay, do you start to recognize a little bit what we are talking about here? So now, we have the second type of equanimity, to rid ourselves, at least provisionally, of this feeling of “some are close and some are distant from us.” “Provisional” means that we haven’t achieved a true stopping of it; “provisionally” just means that we’ve quieted it down. Without the understanding of voidness, you’re not going to get rid of it forever.

Equanimity Based on Rationality

So now we get this more rational approach, which will lead to a rational establishment of compassion. This is the practice of equalizing our attitude toward everyone. You know, we have this expression “equalizing and exchanging our attitudes about self and others,” and often I know I myself thought that this means equalizing our attitude about self and others and exchanging our attitude about self and others. And although we do, as part of the process, see that just as I want to be free from suffering so does everybody else – so there is that aspect in terms of determination to be free from our own problems, then we transfer that to others and the compassion, the wish for everybody to be free from their problems – that’s not the emphasis here.

Here the emphasis is just on equalizing, making everybody equal, or realizing that everybody is equal, in order to overcome this feeling that some are close and some are distant. And that’s based on the understanding that everybody equally wants to be happy; everybody equally does not want to be unhappy; everybody has the equal right for happiness and not to be unhappy; everybody is equally needing our help. Everybody is equal in that sense. That’s a very rational basis, isn’t it?

If you have ten patients in the doctor’s office, all of them want to be cured; all of them want the attention of the doctor equally, don’t they? And all of them have the same right to the same type of treatment, because they’re all equal. Everybody wants to be happy, everybody wants to be cured from their problems; nobody wants to be sick and unhappy. So you see, that’s a very rational way of equalizing everybody as opposed to a very emotional one of everybody has been so kind to me and treated me with such loving care like a mother. It’s a very different way of equalizing, isn’t it?

So, in this way, we try to counter these subtle disturbing emotions that are still left, even if we’ve tried to work primarily with the gross disturbing emotions. Even though previously we have worked on the gross level of disturbing emotions, we have to work on the subtle level, that because some seem close to us we are, in a very subtle way, attracted to them; we feel closer. And others seem distant to us, so we feel a little bit distant. It’s a very subtle disturbing emotion that we draw back. But then, everybody is equal in this very rational way. So, we’ve dealt with the two levels of the disturbing emotions. That’s why we have the two types of equanimity.

Now, if we’ve only worked on that emotional side for our development, then, “Everybody has been so kind and I feel so grateful and I love them, I want them to be happy,” and compassion, “I don’t want them to suffer” – that’s one way. And it’s very important to have some warm emotional feeling like that, because it helps in relating to others. But it can be a bit overwhelming – overwhelming to the other person and overwhelming to us. So it needs to be more balanced – balanced with a rational reinforcement of love and compassion. So that rational approach – we’re all equal – that helps us with the subtle disturbing emotion. And then in a very rational way we think of the disadvantages of self-cherishing – of being selfish, of thinking only of myself – and the benefits and advantages of cherishing others.

Combining the Emotional and Rational Developments of Compassion

It doesn’t make sense, rationally, to act in a selfish way, because it just presents problems. Because of acting selfishly, then I steal, I am inconsiderate of others, I hurt others – because I’m just thinking in terms of me. Because if I think in terms of others, it brings harmony, happiness, etc. So this is a very rational basis for our eventual bodhisattva conduct. But it’s combined with this warm feeling that we have developed through the practice of seeing everybody has been our mother.

Then we have the practice of love and compassion in this tonglen process – taking on the suffering of others and giving happiness to them. That’s based on seeing the equality of self and others. Just as I’ve taken care of this body and cleaned it, I can take care of any other body. It’s just taking care of a body. What’s the difference? This body came from the sperm and egg of two other people, so it’s not really my own body, is it? It’s part of somebody else’s body. So what’s the difference between taking care of a body that came from the sperm and egg of this couple, and the body that came from the sperm and egg of that couple? There’s no difference. So in a very rational way we then develop this concern for others to be happy and not to have unhappiness, just as we would have that for ourselves.

In this way – what’s known as the “eleven-part process for developing bodhichitta” – we combine the emotional and rational developments of compassion and work on both the gross and the subtle disturbing emotions. It’s an unbelievable sophisticated system, if you really analyze and see how it’s working and why it’s working. So, let’s digest this much.


As we open ourselves up to everyone and develop our hearts and minds to be concerned with everyone, we want to do that in a balanced way. We want to do that with warm emotion, positive emotion, but that has to be balanced with a rational understanding, so that it becomes more stable. And we have to balance that rational approach with feeling, otherwise it’s too mechanical. And we have to work to overcome both ego-based disturbing emotions and just more subtle ones, based on how people appear to us – close or far. Okay? Any questions?


Making Mistakes

I have the feeling that mistakes are an unavoidable part of our spiritual path, and even though there is a feeling that after a mistake we are getting a little bit back and our aim is not to repeat this mistake again, but the thesis underlying is that it is probably impossible not to make mistakes at all.

Well, this gets into the four noble truths, basically. For each of the four truths there are four correct understandings and four mistakes about them – so the sixteen aspects of the four noble truths. And the third noble truth is that there is such a thing as a true stopping of our problems and their causes – true stopping – so that they’re gone forever and they will never recur. So, the wrong understanding of that would be that it’s not possible to get rid of them forever, that they will always recur – so like what you were saying, you will always make mistakes. To clear up that misconception about whether or not it’s possible to get rid of the causes of suffering forever, to clear up that confusion we have to get into a very sophisticated discussion of the pure nature of the mind, and is confusion an intrinsic part of mental activity.

We don’t really have the time; this is not the occasion to get into that whole discussion. That’s a very complex, deep, sophisticated discussion, but it’s a very important one. But that’s the direction we need to go in – to examine what actually is the nature of the mind, and is the nature of the mind inherently stained and confused or not? And can correct understanding, maintained always, get rid of the confusion forever? It requires a great deal of analysis and meditation to understand this. It’s not a simple question at all.

So, does it mean that we can actually gain true stoppings without making mistakes on the path?

Responsibility toward Those Close to Us in This Lifetime

In the process of working toward a true stopping, of course you are going to make mistakes and there will be confusion. But it will get less and less and less, and eventually you won’t have the confusion anymore, you won’t make any mistakes. Any other questions?

The question is, in this context of equalizing all sentient beings among themselves, we are thinking of them in terms of everyone of them being our parents, and so on. But what about our duty toward our own actual parents in this life, or toward our children in this life? Because if we start to think everyone is my parents, then it completely dissolves… If we have this feeling toward everyone, then our feelings toward a particular person becomes lesser, it kind of dissolves, because responsibility to everyone sounds very much like responsibility toward nobody, in a sense.

In the Seven Point Mind Training text, one of the points for training is to practice with those who are close to us first. Don’t ignore them. Now, we might think that this is contradictory to this whole training of not regarding any as close or distant from us. But it’s important to realize that, in terms of reality, we speak about deepest truth and conventional truth. And while understanding and focusing on deepest truth, that doesn’t deny conventional truth – we need to see the two of them together. So, both points of view are valid within their own parameters, in other words within their own context.

So, by analogy, there are different levels of understanding this way of viewing others, or classifying others as close and distant. There are two levels of regarding that; two points of view, deepest and conventional, ultimate and conventional. From the deepest point of view, an ultimate point of view, that appearance of others as being some close and some distant is not rationally justified.

You see, what we want to do, in terms of becoming a Buddha, is to be able to benefit everyone. Remember our cognitive obscurations – our mind makes people appear separate, separate, separate, each one establishing its own existence by itself. So if we think in terms of a countless number of beings and each one of them is separate, separate, separate, separate, it’s just overwhelming that you have to deal with each one individually, separately. You know, I have to develop compassion toward this one, and then this one, and then this one, and then this one, and then this one – for a countless number. I mean this is really very weird, isn’t it?

So, to develop the type of compassion, great compassion of a Buddha – great compassion of a Buddha is not aimed at individual separate, separate, separate, separate, separate, this one, that one, that one, that one, that one – in terms of how it appears to a Buddha. So, we have what’s called unaimed compassion. It’s not aimed at specific, separate beings that appear some close, some distant, and so on. That doesn’t make everybody into one undifferentiated mess, or soup. But from the point of view of a Buddha, the analogy that’s used is that the Buddha’s compassion is like that of the sun shining – it just shines everywhere. It’s not shining just to make this one warm and that one warm, and that one warm, and that one warm. It just shines, unaimed at anything specific or only this thing specifically. That’s why we need to overcome the cognitive obscurations as well, in order to really have the full compassion of a Buddha’s omniscient mind.

Now, that deepest fact, that deepest approach – how it is from the point of view of a Buddha – that doesn’t negate that conventionally in this lifetime you’ve been my mother. That doesn’t contradict this. And conventionally there are some that are more receptive to us and some that are not so receptive to us. This is based on karma, isn’t it? So, that’s why you have this advice in the lojong mind training, that when you start to work to help others, don’t neglect those that are conventionally closest to you – your parents, your family etc. – and you extend from there. That doesn’t contradict having this unaimed compassion toward everyone.

So within this unaimed compassion for everybody, then, on a practical level we take responsibility to help those that in this lifetime, for various karmic reasons, happen to be closer to us, as in our parents. That’s why we make all these prayers, and so on, “May I be able to benefit all beings,” and when we do Mahayana practices we imagine everybody around us, so that we can build up this karmic connection to be able to help everybody. And you see the result – how many people come to a lecture by me or by some other regular teacher, and how many people come to a lecture of His Holiness the Dalai Lama? It’s clear, in terms of the connection that attracts everybody. It’s all dependent on your level of compassion.

Sequencing the Development of Love and Compassion

In this context, this stage, where we expand our compassion toward all sentient beings, is it something that we practice after we’ve already achieved arhatship?

There are two methods, two styles. One is go all the way to achieving liberation as an arhat and then enter the Mahayana path. The other one is go a little ways into the direction of liberation as an arhat, and then before reaching arhatship you turn to the Mahayana path. So there are two styles. But if we don’t develop love and compassion toward ourselves, in terms of what I was saying of this affirmation of the conventional me working toward my own happiness and getting rid of my own suffering, then you don’t have a basis for wanting other people to be free of suffering and to be happy. So, this is the sequence – you develop these attitudes toward oneself and then you transfer it toward others. And in the process of doing it, don’t be selfish.

If we already achieved arhatship and we already have our personal experience of first being in suffering and then of having no suffering – being liberated from suffering – why do we need to develop compassion toward others with using logical reasoning? Because we already know how to suffer and how not to suffer from our direct experience, and then it will arise naturally toward others…

It will only arise naturally toward others when we understand our interdependence on others, which you understand in a rational way. So, when we think in terms of the kindness of others, then we supplement the understanding that they’ve been kind to us as our mothers by understanding that everybody has been kind to us, even when they’ve not been our mothers. Because everything that I make use of in the day – all the food that I eat, the clothing that I wear, the house that I live in, the street that I travel on – all of that has come about through the hard work of many, many others, through a long historical development. And so, my whole existence is dependent on the hard work and efforts of others. Whether they did it in order to benefit me or not is irrelevant. But if they didn’t do all of that, I couldn’t survive. So it is irrational to just work for my own welfare, as if I existed isolated from everybody else.

The Process of Developing Bodhichitta

Let’s just finish the sequence toward bodhichitta, before we conclude for today’s session. So, we have the development of compassion, the wish for everybody to be free of suffering and the causes for suffering, and we have developed that in a balanced way with both an emotional component and a rational component. And we are already at that stage of compassion, taking some responsibility to help them, as in this tonglen, this giving and taking practice.

But then, we take even a greater level of responsibility with what’s called the “exceptional resolve” – that I’m going to take responsibility to try to bring everybody to not just ordinary happiness and freedom from suffering, but to liberation and to enlightenment. [And we don’t just have this thought as a good intention, but we decide definitely that we are going to do that.] We have this exceptional resolve. But we see, am I capable to bringing everyone to enlightenment, of leading them? Obviously we can’t just by our own power go – zap! – and then you’re enlightened. But can I teach them, can I show them the way? And we realize that, no, at my current level, I’m not able to do that.

The only way that I will be able to do that is if I become a fully enlightened Buddha – so get rid of not only emotional, but cognitive obscurations as well. Because if my mind no longer makes everything appear self-established by itself, not connected to anything else, then there’s no obstacle to becoming all-loving – this unaimed, really unaimed compassion that is for absolutely everybody equally. And I will be omniscient as well; the mind will be able to see the interconnectedness of everything.

If we are able to perceive the interconnectedness of everything, we will know all the causes that have led to each person’s present situation and their problems, and what would be the consequences of teaching them this or that, so we would know how best to help them. So I’ve got to attain enlightenment in order to be able to benefit everyone – to benefit them as much as possible. It’s not possible to become an omnipotent god, that just by your own power you can liberate others. That’s not possible.

So, we develop bodhichitta. Bodhichitta is focused on our own individual enlightenment – not Buddha Shakyamuni’s enlightenment, not enlightenment in general, but our own individual enlightenment, which has not yet happened, but which can happen on the basis of what’s called our “Buddha-nature” factors. And we have two intentions that accompany this: we have the intention to attain that enlightenment, and the intention to benefit everybody by means of this – to benefit them as much as possible along the way. That’s the aspiring state of bodhichitta – what’s known as “merely aspiring,” we’re merely aspiring for this goal. “Aspiring” means that this is our goal, we’re looking up to it and we wish to attain it.

Then there is the pledged aspiring state, which is that I never going to turn back, no matter what. And then the engaged state of bodhichitta. “Engaged” – the Sanskrit word for this is avatara, which is avatar (avatar is the Hindi pronunciation of it). So avatar – we want to incarnate ourselves into bodhisattva behavior, into acting like a bodhisattva. That’s the connotation of engaged bodhichitta. As my teacher Serkong Rinpoche said, you can milk a great deal of meaning from each of the words, if you really know what the words are in Tibetan and Sanskrit. And to incarnate ourselves, to engage in bodhisattva behavior, we take the bodhisattva vows, which give us the guidelines for this type of behavior.

And our conduct will be shaped by the six far-reaching attitudes, the so called six paramitas:

  • Generosity
  • Ethical self-discipline
  • Patience
  • Perseverance
  • Mental stability (concentration)
  • Discriminating awareness (wisdom).

This is the path to enlightenment in brief. This is not the occasion to speak about the six far-reaching attitudes. Those are huge topics. But to attain enlightenment, what we’ve discussed is so-called relative or conventional bodhichitta. We also need what’s called deepest bodhichitta, which means that we have to understand how our own individual enlightenments, which haven’t happened yet, how do they exist. If we have some fantasized projection of some impossible way that it exists, and that’s what we are aiming for, then it’s hopeless.

So, we have to have a correct understanding of how that enlightenment exists, and how it can come about, so that we have a presently-happening enlightenment, and a clear understanding of the cause and effect procedure, and how cause and effect works to actually bring about enlightenment from these Buddha-nature factors. That will be our topic for tomorrow.

So, we think whatever understanding, whatever positive force has come from this, may it go deeper and deeper and act as a cause for everybody to reach enlightenment for the sake of us all. Thank you.